Book Review: Precious and Grace, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the series of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which sees Mma Remotswe and Mma Makutsi solving mysteries in the bosom of Botswana. This is the 17th in the series, and is as predictable and as comforting as a pot of roobush tea.

The characters are the same, and are as you left them. The same kinds of things happen. It is not exciting reading, but it is engaging. It the literary equivalent of putting your feet up and hearing from old friends.

Of course there are problems to solve, a white van to be driven. Rich fruit cake to be eaten at the Orphanage. There is a certain rhythm that McCall Smith takes the reader through. And yet, despite its predictability, I am charmed by the books, the happenings, and the loose plot anchored by the characters we love. What endures is the themes. This one is forgiveness. Beautifully executed by McCall Smith, which remains long after the book is closed. Charming and rewarding. What else is there, at one level? It is like being kissed by the Botswanan sun. No bad thing.

Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

FRANCE, 1939
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.

 

 

2017: Where to begin?

I think I’ll have to begin at the end of this chapter. 2017 hasn’t lived up to its promise. The photo shows my father-in-law and mother-in-law taken at Pete and my wedding (2005). My lovely in-laws have both recently died, within 7 weeks of each other. We are immensely sad, but in many ways it is sweet because they couldn’t bear the thought of living without the other.  63 years married. That’s the end of this chapter.

Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, my dear friend’s dad died. He was my Daddy2 when we were running around the Cotswolds as teenagers looking for fossils.

Death then seems to have held the pen for this chapter. Has rather faltered with it, since it’s felt that we’ve lived with its shadow since the beginning of the year.

Shortly after my father’s death, Alice Thompson published a commentary  in The Times, “we all need to learn to talk about death”. It made me think of my therapy training, and the art of talking about dying. The Victorians were masters of it. There was so much of it during the World Wars. Then what happened? Thompson makes a glorious observation that our younger generation, with their public outpouring on social media may be able to teach us a thing or two about how to express ourselves. They are direct. I can’t bear the reference to “loss”. Keys you lose. People die – they are gone. But you can’t say “I am sorry for your gone”, so we say “loss”. Better just to put your hand on someone’s arm and say, “I am sorry”. Why is death so awkward?

My Daddy2’s funeral he had planned. It was clear for my friend. My in-laws left no guidance, so the family struggled to work out what might be right for them all. Read Alice Thompson (if you can find it, as The Times is not helpful when it comes to sharing articles). Talk about it. My instructions, to be clear, are in the folder marked “Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces” paperwork that includes  my will.

Somewhere near the beginning of the chapter, I applied for an MA Professional Writing at Falmouth University (hoping to find my writing mojo, which is still missing-in-action from 2016’s bumpy ride). I was offered a place. I have just accepted. Life is too short, my husband said.  His parents were 88 and 86 when they died – a good innings you might say. They would probably say not to put off to tomorrow what you really want to do today.

PS. I’ve played around a few times with this draft. It doesn’t say what I want to say, quite. But it just has to be said. Death rides alongside us. If we have the chance to live our dreams, we must take them. Stay in the glitter.

Cliche overload.

Book Review: Ties, by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a story of a marriage. Like many marriages, this one has been subject to strain, to attrition, to the burden of routine. Yet it has survived intact. Or so things appear….

Ties is a clever, classy book. There is an introduction by the book’s translator, Lahiri, which is perfectly placed. I was in two minds whether to read it, before or after. Both would work, but I am glad that I read it before, as an introduction. Lahiri talks about the language and the choices in using words in translation. It introduces a couple of metaphors, containers, that I may not have held so readily.

Ties is almost a perfect book – because it is clever, and because it is an everyday occurrence; marriages falter. The structure lends to its cleverness. Ties is told in three books, by three narrators. The first book reads as a series of angry letters written by Vanda (the wife) to her straying husband (Aldo), revealing the abandonment felt by her and their children from the choices that he made. The second book is Aldo in old age, recounting a trip to the sea and the events that unfold when they return. The third book is narrated by the children, and both reflects and judges their parents and them as their children.

This is a character led story, of course, because it is about a marriage. Through the observations Vanda, Aldo, and then the children, the layers are both put on and stripped off Starnone’s people. It is so clever. There is also a plot, a mystery that emerges in Book Two, resolved in Book Three (no spoilers). It ties into the family. This also makes it clever.

Starnone’s themes are bold. Betrayal, infidelity, domestic abuse (control), loss, ageing.. and family ties. Those emotional ties that bind us. Starnone’s writing is uncluttered, with a directness in the character’s voices that appealed, and lent to a sense of intimacy in reading the book. It really was like eavesdropping in the anatomy of a marriage, witnessing how the dissection of words and actions leads to messy, unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, at 150 pages, but it punches well above its weight. Outstanding.

Book Review: Release The Bats, by DBC Pierre

“Part biography, part reflection and part practical guide, Release the Bats explores the mysteries of why and how we tell stories, and the craft of writing fiction. DBC Pierre reveals everything he learned the hard way.”

I haven’t read Vernon God Little, or anything else by DBC Pierre. I’m not even sure how I stumbled across this work. It is quite unlike any other book about writing that I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few (before I started reviewing them). It is somehow a maverick’s guide to writing. Pierre is right, most of the others I’ve read are by editors or publishers. They give you the net result; the things that work in terms of successful publishing. It is a tall ask of aspiring writers to produce a polished draft, let alone a first one.

What is liberating, rather like the permission that I heard on the Writing Retreat, was that the first draft is shit (thanks be to Hemingway), and this is Pierre’s message. You have to get the story out, in whatever it takes, but this isn’t the work. The work is the craft, and the craft is where you plan, shape, prune (and prune some more), and are tough with the words and yourself. In a sentence, strike out every other word. Odds are it will probably still work. (Odds it probably work(s).. look how I did that?).

So, there is this wonderful natural style. Like pulling up a chair with an old rogue (strike old), and taking their wisdom. It is entertaining, but it is also rich. Points made by rambling around subjects, with anecdotes and quotes. Pierre emphasises the craft of brevity; and this is the genius of his book. The last section is a summary of the work of the early chapters. He boils down his own book into a few headlines – that make perfect sense. A truly powerful gift in itself.

It makes you realise that the hard work isn’t in the 100,000 words of the novel (although God knows it feels like it), but in the craft of getting those words (and losing half of them) into something that is fit to print.

For anyone interested in writing (the verb, not the noun of being a writer) and the different skills needed in the craft, this is a gem of a book.

Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

Another book where I’ve chosen to use the blurb to introduce it, as I couldn’t decide what it was really about, as much as I can’t decide where I am with it. The introduction would suggest that it is about these two people, but there is so much more – the much more being as engaging as the sparks that fly between the mutual attraction of Cora and Will.

What I loved about The Essex Serpent was the boldness and intelligence of the themes – Darwinism and the march of science (London, and its characters from here), compared to pious and/or pagan beliefs (village Essex, and its characters). The advance of socialism, through the radical Martha (Cora’s companion), and the insights into slumland London of the Victorian age. Within all of these tangled love stories – but not all in a conventional sense. They were as gritty as the streets of London, or the swirling mists over the Essex waters. These themes were cleverly layered in plot and sub-plot and sustained my reading and enjoyment of the novel.

What stops me from outright loving this book is that this earthy, gritty feel, gothic in nature at times was at odds with the characters. That’s not to say that the characters were well-defined. Perry is a brilliant observer of people, and this made for compelling, believable characters. However, early in the book I had to check the jacket cover to work out what the historical period was meant to be – there was something that stopped convincing me that it was entirely historic, and I think that was in the treatment of its female protagonist, Cora, and certainly Martha. Their views, dialogue just seemed too modern. What also flummoxed me was how nice the characters were to each other; really? There was little tension between the characters, particularly the sweet Stella, wife of the vicar. It just didn’t stack up enough. Perry chose a multiple viewpoint, so you know, you are inside the head of different characters. They just seemed very understanding. And you can’t tell me that a village in 1893 would be scandalised by the ‘carrying on’ of their vicar and a widow.

Perry used letters between Will and Cora, and also Luke Garret, a radical doctor, who is in love with Cora from the opening of the book. Will and Cora’s correspondence was rather ‘light’ and surprisingly open in affection (isn’t that the antithesis of a Victorian way of being?). Cora’s spitefulness is revealed in an exchange of letters between her and Luke, and she deserved everything as a result.

There are curiosities throughout the book. Was Martha Cora’s lover? I think so. How the abuse suffered by her husband (dead at the beginning of the book) shaped her, and their child. The strange relationship with her child, and whether that was nature or nurture that shaped him.

When I thought about this book, I was surprised at my own reflection that it is ‘gentle’, despite the gothic feel and the tensions around the serpent (as felt by the locals in Aldwinter). This is the rub: the tension doesn’t translate to the characters, and as they breathe the life through the book, this is what I was left with.
The Essex Serpent is a compelling read, delicious in prose (sense of place and setting is rich and glorious), and I would recommend it. The cover alone is makes the purchase worthwhile; a bit crass, but it will stay on my bookshelf because of it. Well done Profile Books Ltd.